Dig or die: That's the situation schoolteacher Niki (Eiji Okada) finds himself in after a long day of bug collecting. Escaping frantic Tokyo for an extended weekend in the desert, the amateur entomologist trudges across ever-shifting sands in search of the beetle that will forever enshrine his name in a scientific insect journal. When he misses the last bus back, locals from a nearby dune village offer him a place to stay for the night. They lower him by rope ladder into the sandpit home of an attractive widow (Kyôko Kishida) where he gets a hearty meal and a good night's sleep. Come morning, however, Niki wakes to find the ladder gone. He soon discovers he's trapped in a plot that falls somewhere between Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit and Stephen King's Misery.
The first featured film in the Detroit Film Theatre's retrospective on Hiroshi Teshigahara, this 1965 classic is a meditation on modernization and gender relations, constructed like a slow-motion horror film. Imprisoned with a woman whose world revolves around the Sisyphean task of keeping the sand at bay, Niki quickly discovers that his comfortable life of dreams, ideas and indulgent minutiae have no value in a place where food and water are luxuries.
Surprisingly, Teshigahara presents his characters with both humanity and empathy. There's no villainy in the unnamed woman's actions only ignorance and desperation. She, like Niki, struggles to find a purpose for living that goes beyond eating, sleeping and sex. The sand works itself into every aspect of their lives yet provides nothing to hold onto. Teshigahara embraces this metaphor with zeal and casts the sand itself as a malevolent third character. Walls sift and crumble beneath Niki's grasping fingers, and undulating dunes rearrange the ground beneath his feet: It's a relentlessly shifting enemy that threatens to swallow the last shred of his humanity.
Beautifully filmed in high-contrast black and white, shapes are blurred and bodies bleed into their surroundings. Pools of shadowed blacks threaten to send the characters into an endless void should they step in the wrong direction. Long static shots of the landscape shift and change into abstract patterns. Teshigahara's images are as sensuous as they are ominous.
Woman in the Dunes is an existential nightmare that creeps under your skin more successfully than most modern horror films. The deliberately slow pacing may challenge your patience, but will prove well worth your time.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 1.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.